A year and a half out from a Rugby World Cup on home soil, the one thing you don’t want is your most experienced player swanning off to France and effectively ruling himself out of the running for selection. That he plays in the most pivotal position on the pitch, fly-half, is equally as distressing. He is not everyone’s cup of tea, but make no mistake: Toby Flood’s move to France is a huge blow for England at this stage of the World Cup cycle.
However, from this bad news springs some good. The calls for George Ford’s inclusion in the England set-up have reached a crescendo, but were it not for Flood’s French sojourn it is unlikely the youngster would have got a look in so soon.
Now, it appears he is on a two-man shortlist to replace Flood for the upcoming RBS Six Nations – ironic, given that his frustration at not being able to do just that at Leicester is the exact reason he moved to Bath, and is consequently being talked up for international honours. For all the criticism he received from Tigers fans for that move, he has spectacularly reaped the benefits of being the undisputed number one choice down in the West Country.
The other man on that shortlist is Northampton’s Stephen Myler, who has been leading the Northampton backline with quiet aplomb so far this season. Other would-be contenders include Exeter’s Henry Slade and Sale’s Danny Cipriani, but the former is too raw while doubts still remain about the latter’s mentality and defence – he needs to prove himself for longer before a return to the England fold will be forthcoming.
So it would appear to be Ford v Myler for now. And really, there is only one right decision here.
Myler does many things well, and, despite being at an entirely different stage in his rugby development, there are plenty of similarities between him and Ford. Myler, like Ford, has benefitted this season from being the undisputed first choice number ten, having shared that duty in recent seasons with Ryan Lamb. He has grown in confidence and looks more comfortable in himself as the chief playmaker and string-puller. In turn, that confidence has seen his goal-kicking percentage sky-rocket – as has Ford’s.
For all their similarities, though, it is where they differ that is crucial. Myler manages a game superbly well, and is solid in defence. In those aspects, he is probably better than Ford. The Bath man, however, offers so much more in attack. He has a deceivingly dangerous change of pace, an eye for a gap, and superb distribution skills. All of these were in evidence against Leicester at the weekend, when he so nearly inspired Bath to what would have been only their second ever win at Welford Road.
Many have said he is not ready. They have claimed his place-kicking is not good enough and that he does not perform under pressure. Those perceived weaknesses were quashed in that game, where many would have expected him to fall apart. Back at a ground where he spent his rugby education, in front of fans still disgruntled at his decision to leave, he could probably have been forgiven for having a bad day at the office. Instead, he stuck to his game and had a hand in all three of Bath’s three beautifully executed tries. He also nailed all of his kicks, which was crucial in securing the draw.
While Myler is also an excellent kicker, he does not possess the innate ability, or vision, to throw the over-the-top miss pass Ford did for the first try, or the pace to scythe through the defensive line in the build-up to the second. These are the traits that England fans want to see.
Another thing to consider is the balance of England’s fly-half options. Owen Farrell is a solid player, in a similar way to Myler, but crucially he is considerably younger. Myler is 29 – do England need another, older, Farrell in their ranks? Or would they be better served looking to a younger, more exciting player – certainly someone that is more likely to feature prominently post 2015? With Burns not firing and seemingly third choice, and Farrell nailed on as first choice, Ford would offer so much more to bring off the bench than Myler.
Ask yourself this – if this were New Zealand, would we even be having this debate? Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett, two brilliantly exciting, young fly-halves who have emerged in recent years, pretty much answer that question. Myler is a fantastic player, but Ford is England’s future.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images